Omega-3s are generally safe and well tolerated. Stomach upset and “fishy taste” have been the most common complaints, but they are less frequent now thanks to manufacturing methods that reduce impurities. Past concerns about omega-3s increasing the risk of bleeding have been largely disproven, but caution is still advised in people taking blood thinners or who are about to undergo surgery. As mentioned, caution is needed in people with bipolar disorder to prevent cycling to mania. Because omega-3s are important to brain development, and pregnancy depletes omega-3 in expectant mothers, supplementation should theoretically benefit pregnant women and their children. Fish consumption in pregnancy is supported by the FDA, but because we do not have long-term data on safety or optimal dosing of omega-3s in pregnancy, expectant mothers should consider omega-3 supplements judiciously.
Dry eye. Some clinical research shows that eating more fish oil is linked to a lower risk of getting dry eye syndrome in women. Other research shows that taking a specific fish oil product (PRN Dry Eye Omega Benefits softgels) daily modestly improves symptoms of dry eye such as pain, blurred vision, and sensitivity. Other research using other forms of fish oil products suggests that taking these supplements for 4-12 weeks modest improves some dry eye symptoms. However, the sensation of eye dryness is not always improved. Other research also shows that taking a specific combination products containing fish oil and other ingredients might improve some dry eye symptoms; however, this research is conflicted and poor quality.
Many studies show that eating fatty fish and other types of seafood as part of a healthy eating pattern helps keep your heart healthy and helps protect you from many heart problems. Getting more EPA or DHA from foods lowers triglyceride levels, for example. Omega-3 dietary supplements can also help lower triglyceride levels, but it is not clear whether omega-3 supplements protect you from most heart problems.
The evidence linking the consumption of marine omega−3 fats to a lower risk of cancer is poor. With the possible exception of breast cancer, there is insufficient evidence that supplementation with omega−3 fatty acids has an effect on different cancers. The effect of consumption on prostate cancer is not conclusive. There is a decreased risk with higher blood levels of DPA, but an increased risk of more aggressive prostate cancer was shown with higher blood levels of combined EPA and DHA. In people with advanced cancer and cachexia, omega−3 fatty acids supplements may be of benefit, improving appetite, weight, and quality of life.
Fish oil is also commonly used to treat conditions such as Rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure, ADHD, menstrual pain, hardening of the arteries or kidney problems. These conditions can be improved by improving blood flow, which omega-3 fatty acids in the blood stream. There is also some evidence that fish oil may help with conditions such as chest pain, liver disease, migraine prevention, gum infections, breast pain, and muscle soreness due to exercise, skin rashes and stomach ulcers.
Capanni, M., Calella, F., Biagini, M. R., Genise, S., Raimondi, L., Bedogni, G., Svegliati-Baroni, G., Sofi, F., Milani, S., Abbate, R., Surrenti, C., and Casini, A. Prolonged n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation ameliorates hepatic steatosis in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: a pilot study. Aliment.Pharmacol.Ther. 4-15-2006;23(8):1143-1151. View abstract.
The most extensive data of the effect of fish oil on lipoprotein subfractions are based on trials performed before the widespread use of statins. This data were aggregated over a decade ago in a meta-analysis of 16 randomized trials including over 1500 patients.17 In this analysis, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) was increased by an average of 5% and high-density lipoprotein was marginally changed. Although a shift toward less atherogenic, larger and more buoyant LDL particle composition has been shown,74 this has been offset by the observation that the number of apolipoprotein B 100 particles increases and may be more susceptible to oxidation.75 Increased conversion of remnant particles (intermediate density lipoprotein) to LDL has also been observed.76
Infant development. There is some evidence that mothers who eat fish or take fish oil supplements during pregnancy may improve some aspects of their baby's mental development. Taking fish oil during breast-feeding does not have this effect. However, feeding infants formula fortified with fish oil appears to improve some aspect of the baby's vision by the age of 2 months.
Further, according to subgroup results based on the presence of specific clinical diagnoses or not, the association of omega-3 PUFA treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms was significantly higher in subgroups with specific clinical diagnoses than in subgroups without clinical conditions. Among 6 studies included in a meta-analysis of the effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms, the analysis showed a nearly null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on depressive symptoms in healthy participants.73 Although the reason for the null effect of omega-3 PUFAs on anxiety and depressive symptoms remains unclear, certain pathophysiological conditions might be required for omega-3 PUFAs to exert an association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms.
Irish AB, Viecelli AK, Hawley CM, et al; Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish Oils) and Aspirin in Vascular Access Outcomes in Renal Disease (FAVOURED) Study Collaborative Group. Effect of fish oil supplementation and aspirin use on arteriovenous fistula failure in patients requiring hemodialysis: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Med. 2017;177(2):184-193. View abstract.
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A group out of India conducted a study published in Cancer Chemotherapy and Pharmacology based on the premise that “fish oil rich in n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids has been preferred to chemosensitize tumor cells to anti-cancer drugs.” The study found that using 5-Fluorouracil (5-FU) to treat colorectal cancer along with fish oil increased the survival rate in carcinogen-treated animals. Researchers also found that the fish oil ameliorated hematologic depression, along with gastrointestinal, hepatic and renal toxicity caused by the 5-FU. (15)
Boucher, O., Burden, M. J., Muckle, G., Saint-Amour, D., Ayotte, P., Dewailly, E. ... Jacobson, J. L.. (2011, May). Neurophysiologic and neurobehavioral evidence of beneficial effects of prenatal omega-3 fatty acid intake on memory function at school age. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 93(5), 1025-1037. Retrieved from http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/5/1025.full
There was a significantly greater association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms in participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs than in those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage less than 60% (k, 11; Hedges g, 0.485; 95% CI, 0.017-0.954; P = .04; Figure 4)35,49,52,54-61 but no significant difference in the association of treatment with reduced anxiety symptoms between participants receiving omega-3 PUFAs and those not receiving omega-3 PUFAs in the subgroup with an EPA percentage of at least 60% (k, 9; Hedges g, 0.092; 95% CI, –0.102 to 0.285; P = .35) (Figure 4).33,34,36,47,48,50,51,53,60 There were no significantly different estimated effect sizes between these 2 subgroups by the interaction test (P = .13).
Recent studies have shown that the consumption of fish oil (or, more specifically, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil) can improve fertility in both men and women. DHA, which is a byproduct of omega-3 fatty acids, plays a key role in the mobility of sperm and health of sperm in men. Low blood levels of DHA have been linked to decreased fertility. Animal studies have found that the DHA in fish is vital to changing dysfunctional round-headed sperm into strong swimmers with cone-shaped heads packed with egg-opening proteins. (29)
The supplements contain omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated oils prominent in fatty cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. In many observational studies, people who regularly consumed fish two or more times a week were less likely to suffer heart attacks, strokes and cardiovascular deaths than those who ate fish infrequently or not at all.
A scientific review in 2014 evaluated study findings on omega-3 intake in relation to the prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the most prevalent cancer among women. The review found that EPA and DHA, as well as ALA, can differentially inhibit breast tumor development. According to this review, there is solid evidence to support the use of omega-3s as “a nutritional intervention in the treatment of breast cancer to enhance conventional therapeutics, or potentially lowering effective doses.” (16) Additionally, a 2016 study found that “very high fish consumption in early adulthood to midlife may be associated with decreased risk of breast cancer.” (17)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 3 g/day of EPA and DHA combined, including up to 2 g/day from dietary supplements. Higher doses are sometimes used to lower triglycerides, but anyone taking omega-3s for this purpose should be under the care of a healthcare provider because these doses could cause bleeding problems and possibly affect immune function. Any side effects from taking omega-3 supplements in smaller amounts are usually mild. They include an unpleasant taste in the mouth, bad breath, heartburn, nausea, stomach discomfort, diarrhea, headache, and smelly sweat.
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We’ve written about the dose necessary to achieve measurable benefits before. However, a person’s actual omega-3 intake can be tricky to estimate. Even if you eat at least two servings of fatty fish per week, as the American Heart Association recommends (10), your fish might contain more or less omega-3s depending on the fish species, the time of year, and how you cook it. Even taking fish oil supplements isn’t always straightforward, as dose can be impacted by numerous bioavailability factors, as well as genetics, age, gender, medication-use and lifestyle.
Human diet has changed rapidly in recent centuries resulting in a reported increased diet of omega−6 in comparison to omega−3. The rapid evolution of human diet away from a 1:1 omega−3 and omega−6 ratio, such as during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, has presumably been too fast for humans to have adapted to biological profiles adept at balancing omega−3 and omega−6 ratios of 1:1. This is commonly believed to be the reason why modern diets are correlated with many inflammatory disorders. While omega−3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may be beneficial in preventing heart disease in humans, the level of omega−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (and, therefore, the ratio) does not matter.
Fish oils might slow blood clotting. Taking fish oils along with medications that also slow clotting might increase the chances of bruising and bleeding.
Three omega−3 fatty acids are important in human physiology, α-linolenic acid (18:3, n-3; ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5, n-3; EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6, n-3; DHA). These three polyunsaturates have either 3, 5, or 6 double bonds in a carbon chain of 18, 20, or 22 carbon atoms, respectively. As with most naturally-produced fatty acids, all double bonds are in the cis-configuration, in other words, the two hydrogen atoms are on the same side of the double bond; and the double bonds are interrupted by methylene bridges (-CH
Depression. There is inconsistent evidence on the effect of taking fish oil for depression. Some research shows that taking fish oil along with an antidepressant might help improve symptoms in some people. Other research shows that taking fish oil does not improve depression symptoms. The conflicting results may be due to the amount of EPA and DHA in the supplement or the severity of depression before treatment.